It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s words are apt to be used, misused and appropriated as a 21st century authoress seems fit; of late we have seen the unhappily undead inserted into a genteel love story, poor Mr Wickham suffering under the obligation to investigate a murder, and even witnessed Austen’s phrases regurgitated into an improvised entertainment at Covent Garden.
Now, bold authoress Laura Wade has taken the liberty of finishing an incomplete work – known as The Watsons – in the form of an adaptation for the theatre, a medium that Austen cast as morally dubious in her novels (notably Mansfield Park) but was, in real life, apparently rather a fan of.
The heroine of this piece, a worldly spinster of one-and-thirty, Alice returned from her evening at the theatre without having entirely corrupted her morals, and awoke the next morning with the determination to pen a report of her evening’s entertainment (under a male pseudonym, of course) for the Hampshire Chronicle.
“A meta review of a metatheatrical play? Are you quite sure that’s wise?”, her young cousin Amy interjected, bursting with frustration at having been excluded from the previous night’s amusements on account of a head cold.
“I’m never quite sure about anything”, Alice replied, but still she folded down her writing desk and proceeded to write. She was aware that such an exercise could be perceived as a tortuous self-indulgence, or indeed a sycophantic act of fandom. It was necessary to admit, also, that crafting a work that contained all possible criticisms of itself didn’t, in turn, make it immune from said criticisms. Still, these scruples could not restrain her eager pen.
‘The Watsons begins quite as one would hope. Emma is a young woman of 19 who is unceremoniously returned to the care of her poor relations, a rude shock after her genteel upbringing with a rich aunt. What follows has every enchantment typical of Jane Austen’s stories, performed by a fine ensemble of actors and bit-players. Emma is handsome, clever and rich, very much like her Austenian namesake, with a dash of Lizzie Bennett. She has three suitors; Lord Osborne is a kind of Darcy, in possession of great fortune but nonetheless incapable of making a proposal that isn’t mildly insulting to his intended. Tom Musgrave is, like Wickham, the very pattern of a handsome rogue. And Mr Howard is an Edmund-of-Mansfield-Park, a clergyman whose priggishness is none the less ennervating for the fact he happens to be correct. After a most enjoyable ball, Emma accepts Osborne’s proposal, prompting a hitherto unnoticed servant to interrupt their tete-a-tete. This servant is the play’s author Laura in disguise. She cannot resist intervening, as she is struggling to control the characters she has newly assumed responsibility for; they are altogether as wayward as the Bennett’s youngest daughters. Laura’s sudden appearance in her narrative sets everything astir. Soon, every person in the novel is crowding around her, demanding to know their fates. They are disturbed to know that they are ‘characters’, not real people, as they had hitherto imagined.’
As must be clear by this juncture, Alice was a keen subscriber to a circulating library in which Jane Austen’s novels feature heavily; she also was yet to realise her own status as a semi-fictionalised persona. As she pored in blissful ignorance over her sheet of foolscap, she heard the door creak open. Impetuous Amy dashed in and seized the paper from under Alice’s pen. “This is all very well, but all you’ve done is describe the plot. What I really want to know is; Did any of the gentlemen have shapely calves? Did your new muslin cause a stir? And should I persuade papa to lend me the postchaise so that I might go tomorrow?”
Alice smiled wryly. “The gentlemen’s calves were all formed approximately as nature intended. The assembled company were entirely able to contain their raptures at my new muslin. And on your last point, how else might I let you know whether The Watsons is worth your trouble without giving some idea of what action is contained within it?”
Amy went off, pouting, to her station by the window, waiting for the regiment to pass. It was certainly more exciting than the theatre, and at least she could rustle her bonbon packets all she liked.
Alice returned to her labours.
‘Hilarity comes from the bewildering anachronisms that Laura introduces (smartphones! skinny jeans!), and from the way that her authorial presence muddies this immaculate Regency world, tearing it apart at the seams, like a delicate frock at a particularly boisterous ball. There’s an air of feverishness, of mass hysteria, as its characters test the possibilities of their stage play world; they quote Hobbes and Rousseau, trying to explore whether they have free will, and what the future holds for them. Adorably precocious young Charles is horrified to know that he will remain ten years old for ever, and will never enjoy the charms of a lady. Meanwhile, the older characters rebel by bedding whoever they choose, cavorting in an uncouth manner, and most of all testing the limits of their power over their creator.’
She heard the tramp of boots and squeals of laughter from outside her window. Amy had pretended to drop her new bonnet as the regiment went past, for the pleasure of seeing them pick it up, as Alice had begged her a thousand times not to. Most embarrassing. She continued.
‘All in all, it’s a staunch endorsement for the kind of firm authorial hand missing from today’s ‘devised’ entertainments. Amid the unseemly mayhem, though, this is an exploration of what it means to create. Wade’s play builds the sense that control is an illusion, that the imagination is something wayward and unbiddable, each postchaise of thought leading to an unknowable destination. There is a discomfiting honesty to the way that Laura exposes the agonies of writing and the mess that her metatheatrical narrative gets her into; this pain is all the sharper for sitting in a frame that’s so delightfully frivolous. Laura ultimately, half-heartedly affirms that writing is worth her pains, despite its unruliness, awkwardness, despite the struggle to continue putting pen to paper as mama of two small infants. She contends that she’ll never be a great writer because she’s not willing to be a ‘monster’, to sacrifice attentive motherhood to put pen to paper. But this play’s success rather gives the lie to that claim. And surely Jane Austen’s writing is so keenly observed exactly because she is forced to lock up her writing bureau when guests come to call. It’s that frustration that makes even the most minor character so full of life that they seem to burst off the page; the annoying visitors mercilessly pinned in the comic bit-players that enliven each novel. How can you ever make art without a rich bank of human experiences to draw on, however frustrating they may be?’
Alice broke off her writing in order to caress the pages of her own half-finished manuscript, filled with characters borrowed from her narrow existence. But when she reached into the little drawer of her bureau, she found it empty.
A blushing Amy sidled in, her bonnet askew. “When you went to the play without me last night, I… burnt your manuscript. I’m sorry.”
“How could you? Not only is that an utterly horrible thing to do, it’s not even from the right novel! I detest you!”
The review lay discarded as she wept bitterly by the fireside. She’d never write that The Watsons was a remarkably entertaining night at the theatre. She’d never acknowledge its part in a movement of meta-theatrical work by female playwrights, that combined Wollstonecraft’s campaigning energy with expansive populism. She’d never write that although The Writer and A Very Expensive Poison seem doomed never to make it to the West End, The Watsons seems entirely transfer-ready, thanks to its ingenious capitalisation on the market for all things Austen. A market that, incidentally, Austen might well have approved of, with her keen and under-acknowledged interest in the workings of commerce. But amongst the despair was perhaps a little relief in that uneasy breast, that she no longer need navigate these unwieldy many layered concerns of reality, free will and existence; layers that Austen herself, wisely, left unstirred.
If you’re concerned by the contortions of time and reality contained in this review, I believe that the standard explanation is that it’s “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff”. And if, for some unaccountable reason, you would like to read more metatheatrical reviews, please peruse Ava Wong Davies’ response to The Hunt. Should you wish to pay a visit to The Watsons, it is on at Menier Chocolate Factory until 16th November.